Marching to the Beat of A Different Drum Major

In hunting for leadership potential, you might make sweet music by looking at marching bands — or at least the examples good ones set.
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In hunting for leadership potential, you might make sweet music by looking at marching bands — or at least the examples good ones set.

Sometimes talent comes from the most unlikely places. Though our future business leaders are apt to come from top MBA programs or perhaps even military branches, these should not be the only avenues to search, especially when looking for leaders with a different point of view.

An often-overlooked arena for leadership development is the arts. Theater, music and the fine arts all require, undeniably, an above-average level of creativity. But they also require the type of discipline, passion and commitment that can be extremely valuable in many areas of business that are now floundering.

An excellent example of this is the marching band. I confess to being an avid football fan who thoroughly enjoys watching and listening to an excellent marching band during halftime shows at college games. Having had the good fortune of observing three giants in the collegiate ranks while in school — bandmasters Leonard Falcone of Michigan State University, William Revelli and his successor George Cavender of the University of Michigan (who refined the “high step” and innovative uniform design) — I saw firsthand how they married their love of music with the highest standards of excellence and an uncanny ability to inspire college students coupled with unremitting discipline.

Under Revelli’s direction, the Michigan Marching Band was the first to use original scores for their band shows and employ synchronized music and movements. They were highly praised for their precision, formations and style. Revelli was tough on his young band members and would not accept mediocrity in his organization. His exceptionally high standards called each member to a higher commitment, not only to their music, but also in all areas of their lives. He looked at the band as an antidote to juvenile delinquency.

The university’s reputation as a premiere music institution is due, in large part, to Revelli’s influence. Translating the same qualities he exhibited in rehearsals and on the field, and looking at how he made everyone in his band reach for their greatest potential, there is no doubt that he would have made an excellent corporate leader had he chosen that path.

Los Angeles is also fortunate to have one of the greatest college marching bands in existence today, the USC Trojan Marching Band. Founded in 1880, it has made more than 280 consecutive game performances, numerous live appearances on TV, in movies, at the Olympics, the Rose Bowl, the Academy Awards and the Grammys, performed for several U.S. presidents and have earned two platinum records. Interestingly, the band’s conductor, Arthur Bartner, now in his 40th year “on top of the ladder,” has all three of his academic degrees from the University of Michigan. His mentor in Ann Arbor was … William Revelli.

Then there is “The Band That Wouldn’t Die.” In 1984, this self-supported, all-volunteer Baltimore Colts Marching Band, managed to work together and keep the band alive even after the Colt franchise was sold and moved to Indianapolis.

The creativity, loyalty and teamwork they showed are noteworthy, as is their story. In the wee hours of the morning when the Colts began their now infamous move to Indianapolis, band members managed to remove their equipment before the Mayflower moving vans arrived. What’s more, they got their uniforms from the dry cleaners and hid them in a member’s cemetery vault until the franchise gave them permission to keep them.

It was the band’s incredible dedication and moxie over the next 12 years that helped convince the Maryland Legislature to fund a new football stadium that eventually brought the Ravens franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996.

So, what specific leadership skills can we learn from these examples? There are many that caught my attention:

• Falcone, Revelli and Cavender were excellent teachers who instilled pride and enthusiasm. They taught their band members how to attain excellence, even perfection, in performance, and how analysis, planning, goal setting, discipline and love of the arts are lifetime skills, applicable to success in any endeavor.

• The Trojan Marching Band is recognized around the world for its organizational ability, ambassadorial skills, adaptability and talent. These are traits to which all solid organizations should strive.

• The Baltimore Colts (now Ravens) Marching Band displayed how creativity, risk-taking and fortitude can move obstacles, even when those obstacles seem insurmountable.

• The final, essential leadership quality seen in all these examples is passion. For the Colts Marching Band, it was a deep abiding loyalty and love for their city and for each other. For Falcone, Revelli, Cavender and Bartner, it’s been a deep appreciation for what music can do, for tradition, innovation, teaching respect for authority and for their beloved universities.

It’s been said that “when work commitment and pleasure all become one and you reach that deep well where passion lives, nothing is impossible.” That’s a good lesson for corporate America to learn and a good path to follow when searching for talent in different places. The future of many organizations may well depend on it.

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